Arts hub dream can still come true
Few works projects in Hong Kong have run into as much trouble as the arts hub proposed in West Kowloon. The lofty ambition to put the city on the international art map with a purpose-built cultural district began in 1998. Sadly, after 14 years, the 40 hectare-site remains an urban desert, the result of questionable design, personnel setbacks and never-ending planning. There is no shortage of problems with this multi-billion-dollar project. A Legco probe into the process of selecting an unused winning design a decade ago is also under way. The name 'West Kowloon' is almost a synonym for controversy.
Adding to the long list of mishaps is the project's cost. A South China Morning Post report suggests the price is likely to exceed the original budget of HK$21.6 billion by nearly 75 per cent, due to rising construction costs and low investment returns. The project may need an extra HK$9.2 billion to HK$16.4 billion, according to estimates by a university professor. It is an open secret that the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is struggling to keep construction costs within budget. It is hard to tell how accurate the professor's estimate is at this stage. But it is very likely that the cost will exceed what was approved in 2008. Inflation in recent years has definitely surpassed the 2 per cent figure used in budgeting, while the investment return is also far below than the 6 per cent assumed.
Cost overruns are not unique to the arts hub. Rising construction costs have put pressure on planners of public and private construction works alike. The surge from HK$39 billion to HK$66.9 billion in the cost of the high-speed railway to Guangzhou is an example.
It is good that the West Kowloon authority is fully aware of the rising costs and is exploring ways to increase revenue. Given the spate of controversies surrounding the arts hub project, it is understandable that the authority wants to break away from the turbulent history and start afresh. In an interview with this paper, chief executive Michael Lynch revealed that a rebranding exercise was under way, including the search for a new name for the arts hub. Hopefully, this image- rebuilding exercise will breathe new life into the project and turn it into the city's new icon. But the project's success goes beyond a mere name change. As the saying goes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. If problems persist, the arts hub will continue to evoke a negative impression whatever its name.
The authority should also focus on the human 'software' without which the site will be nothing more than an ensemble of venues. This requires close co-operation with the cultural sector. We have been waiting for more than 14 years, and the wait is only worthwhile if we get it right. Hong Kong deserves a world class arts hub and it is incumbent upon the authority to make the dream come true.